The Ruth Waddy Sketchbook

July 12, 2011

About a year ago, I received an announcement about a collection of more than 120 drawings by African American artists compiled in a sketchbook that had belonged to Los Angeles artist and activist Ruth Waddy (1909–2003). While this little-known trove seemed remarkable in and of itself, I immediately pursued the opportunity to acquire it for LACMA in part because the image selected to represent the sketchbook was a portrait of Waddy by LACMA’s own Cedric Adams, an artist and a senior art preparator here at the museum. Adams’s pencil portrait of a beaming Waddy is the most representational in the sketchbook and was made when he was just 18. The portrait of Waddy stands out among drawings in the sketchbook by such artists as Romare Bearden, Houston Conwill, Dana Chandler, David Hammons, Varnette Honeywood, Lois Mailou Jones, Samella Lewis, William Pajaud, Noah Purifoy, and Timothy Washington because it alludes Waddy’s significance as documenter, supporter, promoter, and organizer of black art and artists during the 1960s and 70s.

The blank sketchbook was a birthday gift to Waddy in 1968 from her friend Evangeline Montgomery, who inscribed it:

 Have your friends fill up this book in 1968 and get us published in ’69. A new thing to think about.  —Vangie

And that’s exactly what Waddy did. In 1969, Waddy and her friend and colleague, artist and art historian Dr. Samella Lewis, published the first volume of their landmark study Black Artists on Art, and Waddy began carrying her sketchbook with her regularly when visiting artists and attending conferences; her wide circle of artist friends were delighted to add to her collection of drawings.

Waddy’s impact on the artists in her circle was profound and influential. To attest to her legacy and celebrate the acquisition of the Ruth Waddy Sketchbook for LACMA, we created a video of Adams and his mentor, artist and Waddy sketchbook contributor Wes Hall, describing their memories of Waddy, their drawings in the sketchbook, and their impressions of the significance the sketchbook today. For Adams, what remains especially important is that the sketchbook is a “time capsule of what was going on” at the “advent of the black arts movement.”

Austen Bailly